Han Chauvinism/Exceptionalism: The Problem with it

Associate editor at the HNC, Nathan Fischler writes about the problems resulted from China’s “Han Chauvinism”.


In the early 1900s, the nationalist revolutionary Sun Yat-sen made Han Chinese superiority a basic tenet of the Chinese revolution. The “century of humiliation” brought on by Western colonizers, Japanese imperialists, and, worst of all, the weakness and illegitimacy of the ethnic minority Manchu Qing Dynasty, awoke in the revolutionary movement a fierce ethnocentrism and zealous xenophobic sentiments. New China was to be for the Han, an opportunity to wipe away the incompetence and inherent wrongs of the Manchu emperors who had not only brutally invaded and conquered China centuries earlier, but had shamefully led the Middle Kingdom to near ruin by succumbing to “outer barbarians.” When the Qing Dynasty finally fell in 1911, all revolutionary parties and factions agreed: the Manchu emperors, and minority domination of the majority, was finished.

In the latter half of the 20th century, official policy marked “Da Hanzu Zhuyi,” or “Han chauvinism,” as anti-Marxist. Race-based prejudice is inherently counter-revolutionary, and it was in the best interests of the Maoist revolution to do away with all vestiges of the old ways, including exploitative racial bigotry.

In the 21st century, China is now facing a renewed discussion on race relations. While Mao’s rhetorical campaign was Marxist and ideological, the new debate is more reflective of globalization and a more open China. Also a part is the ability of researchers and critics, particularly of the foreign variety, to make observations and gather data on Chinese society. Western observers often measure China’s racial composition and relations based on a Western scale, looking for an Eastern equivalent to white supremacy. This is easily found in “Han chauvinism” and the overwhelming presence of Han Chinese in all upper echelon positions of power throughout the country.

Mao’s campaign against “Han chauvinism” was not a material success. Ethnic minority groups seeking independence or cultural autonomy were deemed counter-revolutionary and collectively punished. The superiority of the Han was obscured by class struggle. Bigoted language and straightforward expressions of racial superiority were replaced with condescending views on revolution.

While constructed with the certain artificial flare that only a communist revolution could bring about, this phenomenon is also representative of the complexity of race relations in China. Over the course of its many thousand years of history, China has been an ethnic melting pot. The Han majority is made up of complicated mixtures of nomadic and sedentary peoples from all over Central and East Asia. Prejudice in Chinese society is based less on genetic composition as it is on the perceived success of a given identity. It is not so common for individual Chinese people to seriously examine their own ethnic identities at the genetic level. That China is ethnically homogenous, even among the Han, is a misnomer.

Given that prejudice is not derived from physical appearance, all Chinese people can become Han in theory. Some argue that the Manchu emperors attempted this by adopting Han Chinese cultural practices and serving as representatives of the ancient and unbroken continuity of Chinese civilization.The genetic ambiguity of the Han serves to complicate issues of prejudice, thus inhibiting understanding of the issue.

It is difficult to have an honest discussion on inter-ethnic relations within China as prejudice is manifested differently. As with many sociological facets, Chinese prejudice is manifested as a collective, not an individual, issue, bringing about a serious societal disconnect.